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What past Finals teams’ top offensive players says about the Jazz

Utah Jazz v Oklahoma City Thunder
Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson account for 37% of Utah’s true-shooting attempts but sport a lack luster -1.3 relative true-shooting percentage.
Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

When Finals teams of yore are remembered and lauded, most often it’s their stars that receive the highest proportion of praise. After all, the NBA is a star driven league.

Outside of the early 2000’s Detroit Pistons and a handful of other Finals teams in the modern era, it’s the offensive stars that dominate the narrative.

Curry and Thompson in 2015; James and Wade in 2012; Bryant and O’Neal in 2002. No doubt these names shouldered the bulk of the load on the way to the Finals, but was their greatness able to lift the team alone?

Conversely, are teams without the offensive firepower at the top disadvantaged despite effective offensive depth?

Let’s look to answer these questions looking at the Finals appearing teams in the 3P era (since 1979 season).

We’ll identify the top offensive players by their true-shooting attempts (TSA). We’ll measure their “load” by their share of a team’s TSAs. We’ll also measure effectiveness by relative true-shooting percentage (rTS%).

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell packs one with two hands on Christmas Day against the Mavericks

Why TSA? It measures how many real opportunities to score a player gets.

Why TS%? It weights FGAs by their appropriate 2 and 3 point values, as well as the point value for a free throw.

We’ll look at regular season numbers due to the sample size and variety of opponents.

Let’s dive in.

40+ years of Finals teams

Let’s take a peak at the top 5 Finals teams in rTS% since 1979.

Top 5 Finals Teams since 1979 in rTS%

Team Season Win Finals Top 2 in TSA Share of TSA rTS% - Top 2 rTS% - Rest of Team
Team Season Win Finals Top 2 in TSA Share of TSA rTS% - Top 2 rTS% - Rest of Team
GSW 2016 No Curry, Thompson 0.416 0.095 0.023
BOS 1987 No Bird, McHale 0.422 0.094 0.006
MIA 2014 No James, Bosh 0.386 0.087 0.028
GSW 2015 Yes Curry, Thompson 0.368 0.081 0.012
MIA 2013 Yes James, Wade 0.401 0.075 0.039

The list passes the eye-test, teams from various dynasties all with at least one top 30 all-time offensive talent. Interestingly, however, only two of these top five won the title.

The bottom 5 teams from the list also make some sense:

Bottom 5 Finals teams since 1979 in rTS%

Team Season Win Finals Top 2 in TSA Share of TSA rTS% - Top 2 rTS% - Rest of Team
Team Season Win Finals Top 2 in TSA Share of TSA rTS% - Top 2 rTS% - Rest of Team
SEA 1979 Yes Williams, Johnson 0.314 -0.014 -0.015
CLE 2007 No James, Hughes 0.397 -0.015 -0.022
DET 2005 No Hamilton, Wallace 0.36 -0.015 -0.001
DET 1989 Yes Thomas, Johnson 0.37 -0.018 0.024
NJN 2002 No Kidd, Van Horn 0.321 -0.023 0.006

Teams with limited offensive talent or (in the case of Cleveland) and all-time talent in James but one of the steepest drop-offs imaginable to Hughes. Again, only two of the five won the chip.

Inspecting the entire dataset and looking to model with logistic regression, there doesn’t appear to be any statistical relationship between a team’s top 2 players’ offensive efficiency and winning the title.

This actually makes sense. What really matters in the Finals is who you matchup up against. The 1979 Seattle SuperSonics with Williams and Johnson won the Finals with the 5th worst rTS% from those two of any of the Finals teams in our study. They matched up against the Washingon Bullets, the 15th worst.

The very next year the Los Angeles Lakers with Abdul-Jabbar and Wilkes represented the West, sporting the 7th best rTS% from those two. What a difference a year makes.

While efficiency from your top players intuitively gives you the best shot, it’s by no means full proof. So what about the rest of the team?

Again, intuitively better team efficiency increases one’s odds. But, again, it turns out, for many of the same reasons, there’s no statistically significant relationship.

Relevance to the Utah Jazz

At first it’d be tempting to translate the above analysis as not really telling us anything. Though there was no clear statistical relationship to our inputs, we can interpret this as saying that there are a lot of ways to win when you boil down to a single series.

(Note: a likely better exercise would be to use these inputs from all teams to find a relationship for getting to the Finals or something a little more broad)

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz
Jordan Clarkson looks to put the moves on Sterling Brown during Utah’s Christmas matchup against Dallas

This is actually good news for the Utah Jazz.

Through 32 games, the Utah Jazz would rank among these Finals teams (86 in total) #82 in rTS% between Mitchell and Clarkson, #48 in share of team’s TSA, and #1 in rTS% from the rest of the team.

While the first metric is concerning and the last one elating, remember there was no common thread of Finals teams winning the chip with any of these inputs. Why is that good news?

Because it means, that when you get there, it’s more about who you play and there’s a lot of ways to win 4 games.

Utah Jazz history

You may be curious to know where the Utah Jazz rank among Finals teams for the 1997 and 1998 seasons. After all, that’s an interesting barometer for our current squad.

In 1997, the Jazz were led by Malone and Hornacek in TSAs, accounting for 40.5% of scoring opportunities. They ranked #12 in combined rTS% and the rest of the team ranked #7 in rTS%.

In 1998, Malone and Hornacek again led the team in TSAs, making up less of the scoring opportunities at 38.6%. They ranked #8 in rTS% between the two of them and #13 in rTS% from the rest of the team.

Karl Malone and John Stockton Game Portrait
John Stockton and Karl Malone led the Utah Jazz to two consecutive Finals appearances only to be obstructed by the likes of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Talk about incredible balance from those teams.

The Bulls, on the other hand, were middle of the pack both years. Ultimately, there was something special (and fishy) about the circumstances that gave Chicago the edge in those series.

The main takeaway from this study is that when you get to the highest level, the Finals, who and what you are for the regular season has little impact in a single series. Who you face and how you adjust is of more importance.

The Jazz have one offensive outlier: Jordan Clarkson. He’s logged the 2nd most TSAs on the Jazz this year but finds himself 5.7% below league average in TS%.

Utah Jazz adjusted true shooting
Utah Jazz 2022 season adjusted true shooting
Data thanks to | Visual thanks to Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

With Utah’s perimeter defense struggles, there’s a good argument that supplanting a defensive-minded rotation player who uses less possessions even at the same poor efficiency would make the Jazz better.

This study, however, can present an argument that the Jazz, as presently constituted, are good enough to get to the Finals and in such a series, there’s many ways to win.

You be the judge of which of the many possible approaches to maximizing one’s title odds is best for our Utah Jazz.